Mathematics and magic are often seen as independent disciplines but actually, they play together! How can we learn about binary numbers with a touch of magic?
Preparation
Get ready and write the following 4 columns of numbers on your whiteboard or on a blank piece of paper.
Instructions
Ask your friend to think of a number between 1 and 15 and keep it for herself.
Ask her to tell you the columns in which her number appears.
Now sum up the first numbers in each of the columns. Is that the number she had in her mind?
The result you've obtained matches the number that your friend had thought of and she'll be amazed! 💫
Important: You need to guess the number without looking at the columns of numbers. Otherwise, she'll think you're cheating!
But, is this magic?
No, it's mathematics!
We can decompose any number as a sum of powers of 10. Let's remember that the powers of 10 are of the form:
10^{0} = 1
10^{1} = 10
10^{2} = 100
10^{3} = 1000
...
That means that we can decompose the number 247 as 200 + 40 + 7. In turn, we can factor each of the previous addends:
40 = 4 x 10 = 4 x 10^{1}
7 = 7 x 1 = 7 x 10^{0}
Finally we have:
247 = 2 x 10^{2} + 4 x 10^{1} + 7 x 10^{0}
What happens if we use now powers of 2? Let's remember what the powers of two are:
2^{0} = 1
2^{1} = 2
2^{2} = 4
2^{3} = 8
...
We can express any number as the sum of these powers and thus obtain its representation as a binary number.
Let's look at some examples:
1 = 0 x 2^{3} + 0 x 2^{2} + 0 x 2^{1} + 1 x 2^{0} => 0001
2 = 0 x 2^{3} + 0 x 2^{2} + 1 x 2^{1} + 0 x 2^{0} => 0010
3 = 0 x 2^{3} + 0 x 2^{2} + 1 x 2^{1} + 1 x 2^{0} => 0011
4 = 0 x 2^{3} + 1 x 2^{2} + 0 x 2^{1} + 0 x 2^{0} => 0100
5 = 0 x 2^{3} + 1 x 2^{2} + 0 x 2^{1} + 1 x 2^{0} => 0101
11 = 1 x 2^{3} + 0 x 2^{2} + 1 x 2^{1} + 1 x 2^{0} => 1011
As it happens in the decomposition into powers of 10, we order the powers from the highest to the lowest exponent.
What does all this have to do with the trick I just learned?
I'm glad you asked! The key is in the way that we organize the numbers in the columns. The numbers at the top of each column correspond to:
2^{0} = 1
2^{1} = 2
2^{2} = 4
2^{3} = 8
When does a number go in the column of 2^{0}? Only when a 1 appears multiplying 2^{0} in its decomposition.
When does a number go in the column of 2^{1}? Only when a 1 appears multiplying 2^{1} in its decomposition.
And so on until all the columns are completed.
For this reason, the number 7, which is decomposed like:
7 = 0 x 2^{3} + 1 x 2^{2} + 1 x 2^{1} + 1 x 2^{0}
only appears in columns 2^{0}, 2^{1}, and 2^{2}.
Extra Challenge
Would you be able to add one more column, headed by 2^{4} = 16, and add the numbers 16 through 31 to keep the trick working?
Solution
Notes
Curriculum links
- Mathematics: Number – Exploring numbers in other bases. Representing numbers in base two.
- Mathematics: Algebra – Continue a sequential pattern, and describe a rule for this pattern. Patterns and relationships in powers of two.
Materials
- Whiteboard or a blank piece of paper
- Pen or pencil to write the columns of numbers
Resources
- This activity has been adapted from Matemagia, by Fernando Blasco.
- Illustrations by Miriam Tocino.
About the author
Alicia Tocino is a mathematician and teacher at the University of Malaga in Spain. She has a passion for magic tricks and uses them in her classes to turn the classroom into a spectacle for her students.